Stories about our Founding
mui Lab initially began with three members. In 2017, when the idea for mui Lab’s signature product, now affectionately known as the “mui Board,” was born, the warehouse of Nissha Co., Ltd., to which the said members were affiliated with at the time, served as mui Lab’s office, where they worked daily on technological development. After various conflicts in the process, two years later in 2019, mui Lab became independent through a management buyout (MBO) by the founding members, walking the path of a startup.
At the time of the founding of the company, the members were in their late 30s and early 40s. What was common among them was how they treasured the time to relax with their families in between their busy work schedules. However, the fast-paced work lives incessantly demanded that the members stay connected even during such fleeting time with their families. In instances where the members quickly responded to such demand, they could sometimes see the dejected and exasperated faces of their children and partners.
The founding members created the product by observing their own families and conducting repeated interviews. What kind of technology and application service would enrich the lives of families and homes? It all began with the idea of creating a product that would please their closest and most important family members, and they are still verifying it today. Presented here, in a Q&A format, is the story of how the company was founded, its unique concept, the hardships faced, and so on, narratives that are not often encountered.
Interviewee: Kazunori Oki, mui Lab CEO & Co-founder
First off, what is the nature of the business?
In the smart home domain, we provide solutions for users’ (consumers’) wellbeing and for corporate DX issues in order to provide home time that benefits everyone’s wellbeing.
We provide solutions for smart homes and develop user interfaces that serve as the point of contact between digital technology and people as Calm UI based on Calm Technology.
I understand that the company name mui Lab comes from “mui-shizen” (harmony). Why is that?
We believe that the future of technology will continue to evolve, and that the concept of “mui-shizen” (harmony), which exemplifies the natural state rather than the artificial, will support the “form” of the technology we are aiming for. Through design and cutting-edge engineering, we are realizing new relationships in which technology is in harmony with people and fosters harmony between people and nature.
Why did you feel that mui-shizen technology is needed?
First, when you hear the words IoT and smart home, often times, devices come to mind. Typical products include smart speakers and AI. Many of these are things that make our lives more efficient and productive through sensor-based automation.
However, when you bring productivity into people’s lives, it ultimately becomes an extension of their work. What do we really need in our lives? Thinking about it from the perspective of our own families, we realized that, once we get home, we wanted to have a lot of time to cherish with them and not get distracted by our devices.The problem here is that these devices are not integrated into people's lives. They bring about many discomforts such as: bombarding you with a large amount of information without regard to the situation, keeping you preoccupied and making it hard to concentrate; we humans talking to inanimate objects (speakers); and receiving strange responses from such inanimate objects. That is, they are not adapted to human mechanisms. Focusing on the fact that technology is purpose-driven, cold, and difficult to comprehend, we thought of developing IoT and smart home technologies that have a natural form rather than an artificial one.
The mui Board is made of wood. Is it difficult to apply touch sensor technology to wood?
Normally, touch panels use glass as the interface, but we replaced it with wood and gave it the ability to transmit. We created our own display that could withstand such transmission. It was an accidental discovery. This technology was completed through a combination of chance and creative thinking.
What were the deciding factors for the material? Were there any difficulties with the material?
This was our first time developing a product, and the challenges were far greater than we had anticipated. We were able to test the materials, but it was quite the struggle to get it to the point where users could test it out with IoT. That is, in the beginning, we were not able to arrive at the stage where users could test it out since we were too preoccupied with trying to figure out how to make the technology work. At the time, Hirobe was the materials designer at Nissha, so we tried a variety of materials. From there, we joined overseas exhibitions and interviewed people around us. Of all the materials, wood seemed to have some sort of magical power or appeal to people, and wooden materials were the most popular. We learned that people have a sense of familiarity with wood and that they perceive its virtue through the five senses, from the way it looks to the way it feels to touch. With this in mind, we thought that the appearance of light when mui is touched and the fact that it processes the touch signal and converts it into a function may generate the same kind of emotion. We wondered whether we could appeal to what people intrinsically feel.Originally, automobiles and home appliances were also made of wood. As industrialization progressed and mass production began, the focus shifted to the disadvantages of natural materials such as being difficult to use, and real wood came to be used only for luxury cars. In this sense, using materials that were no longer being widely used was costly; it was also difficult from an engineering standpoint. As such, until we finally decided to go with wood, there was a conflict between the planning side and the engineering side. We were able to overcome it through the sharing of various experiences and perceptions.
What was the trigger for the development?
The opportunity came at a time when I was trying to find a new form for touch panels for a new business project of Nissha. I wanted to create a product that could be used in furniture, interior design, and architectural spaces, so I fused them with new touch panel technology to create the mui worldview. At that time, I (CEO Kazunori Oki) got married, while Co-founder and Creative Director Hirobe had his third son.
What were your intentions for the development?
We had the feeling that we were being hounded by information, so we wanted to develop a device that would only come out when needed at home. The original idea was to make the device disappear as part of the space.In the hope that people will have heart-enriching experiences in their digital lives and be able to live comfortably and at ease, as well as with the intention of spreading technology close to people's hearts, we continue to face difficult realities every day.
Please elaborate further on the purpose of “Technology Close to People's Hearts.”
This type of technology was not entirely born today. As Steve Jobs said, technology is for humans. It is true that technology tends to be a showcase for new specs and such, and people are easily attracted to that. As a result, I believe that how the users who use such technology feel has been overlooked. We are now collaborating with homebuilders and other entities. In addition to designing, they are also contemplating about what kind of life they want the people who will be living in such dwellings have, placing importance on them living “prosperous” lives. I feel that this perspective is what is lacking on the technology side. How can technology go beyond functionality to meet the true needs of the people who live there? What kind of form should it take so that people will be comfortable with it and accept it? These are key issues to be addressed. One way we approached them is to see if there was room to get closer to people's hearts and minds; in other words, if there were buffers. It is because of such buffers being present that people can feel empathy. One of our indicators is technology with buffers.
Who are the intended users?
We envision the users to be people who have just started new families; those who got married or had children. In this phase of their lives where they will be building and improving their relationships, we want to be an existence that plays a role in helping rather than hindering.
I understand that you became independent (MBO) as an internal venture of Nissha. Can you share the story behind it? Were there any advantages or difficulties?
Originally, the three co-founders (a designer, an engineer, and a new business development salesperson) were employees of a company called Nissha. We started developing the mui Board using the company's venture system. But as we went along, we found that there were some things that did not fit with our strategy of growing as a startup, such as being faithful to the style of business that should be done in a large company; like when it came to recruitment and finance.
mui was an advanced engineering. Therefore, I thought that the startup method was the most appropriate for a business that requires speed to meet the trend of smart homes. Then, we came across a method called MBO and implemented it. By doing so, mui Lab became independent, raised funds from venture capitalists, and had excellent members join us thereafter. We are enjoying the advantages of being a startup.
On the other hand, the change from being a company employee to someone who manages a business was also quite the challenge. Since I have no management experience, it is difficult to make decisions about things beyond my knowledge, and even now, there are many occasions when I still feel that I was not able to do so. There are also moments when I feel that I am acting as a hindrance to the business, and I am trying to change myself while learning from my seniors who have managerial positions.
As for hardships, while I was still gaining experience in managing a business, I felt a sense of crisis when I was unable to go overseas for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the morale of the team dropped along with the fall in sales.
We are now in the business growth phase; that is, we are growing as a company while I am growing in my role in managing the business. Since there are many things that I could not experience as a company employee, I can only benefit from this.
Startups like ours, which were spun off internal corporate ventures through MBOs, are still rare in Japan. While Japanese companies have been criticized as being stagnant for a long time, I think it would be a great opportunity for motivated young people in large companies with abundant human resources, intellectual property, networks, etc. to start their own in-house ventures while utilizing these assets, and to become independent startups like ours that can expand globally. This would not only lead to a solution to Japan's urgent problem of difficulty in raising entrepreneurs, but also revitalize large companies, eventually leading to a leap forward for the Japanese economy.
What were some of the challenges you faced in raising funds?
We raised funding in 2019. At that point, we were in the pre-COVID-19 period and the smart home market was just beginning to grow. We had a hard time convincing investors of our future growth image, but as we received daily support, we realized that we, together with our investors, are colleagues who are building the future together. As Calm Technology expands, we hope to receive even more support.
I understand that the first half of the COVID-19 pandemic was difficult. What do you value in managing a business?
Consistency and coherence. In the beginning, we three founding members had already been working together (at Nissha), so we were able to proceed with tacit knowledge/unspoken understanding between us. However, as the number of people increased, we could no longer move forward in such a manner, so it was important to explicitly communicate our values. The technology is there, and the people who bring it to life are the assets of the company. We need a mechanism to strike a balance between sales growth and how the excellent people we have gathered can grow together with it. While we cannot spend too much money, we keep thinking about what we can offer and how it will help the business and the team grow. It’s always the people we are worried about.
What are the secrets of product development and new business development that you are aware of?
Although we have our own mui product, our main focus is B to B. What is important to us is our relationship with our clients, that we empathize with them, that we launch businesses together with them, and that we develop services and products together as well. I believe this will lead to success. To this end, it is important to consistently and coherently communicate the appeal, personal principles, etc. of our members.
As the name suggests, mui Lab began as a laboratory. How to develop original technology is important, and through it, we want to foster a sense of conviction that “since it is mui, something interesting and wonderful can be created.” To achieve this, we conduct research, hold salons/gatherings, collaborate with artists, and so on. We place importance on how we can become an interesting group.
What are your goals as you work with Alexa and collaborate with housing companies such as JIBUNHAUS. and ReBITA?
“Collaboration” is the company’s approach in doing business: mui Lab acts as a mediator, connecting and creating something new. We believe that it is through mediation that new relationships are born and new value is created. Therefore, we are consciously working on how to create chain-reaction-like collaborations.
First of all, the smart home market itself needs to grow in Japan. To that end, we should work together to boost the market. I am convinced that if we work together as one, a new worldview pertaining to Calm Technology will be born.
You have a branch office in Germany. Did you have global expansion in mind from the beginning?
When I was at Nissha, I was in charge of new business development in the U.S., so I was able to look into the U.S. market. mui's product is more like furniture than tech, allowing differentiation from others, and it is interesting that it is received in a different way. The market is still forming, and it seems to be unique in the smart home domain. Further, as far as the tech industry is concerned, it won the CES Innovation Awards in 2019 and again in 2022 at the annual CES in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, in the design industry, it was a winner at the Archiproducts Design Awards 2021 and was also recognized for the category of sustainability.
I think it is rare to see a global company from Kyoto. Is there anything you can say that is because of Kyoto?
Within tech companies, there are companies that create services born in Boston or Silicon Valley for Japan which serve as a benchmark, but such are still no match for the actual Silicon Valley. We constantly think about what is unique to Kyoto. Exposure to Kyoto's culture allows our development team to expand their creativity. Kyoto has a lot of history, customs, manners, and traditions that support art and technology. The challenge for mui is how to incorporate these into software technology. I believe this is what should be conveyed from Kyoto to the rest of the world and what we can present to the world as a fundamental value.
Since their establishment, Kyoto's prestigious companies have had the unique DNA to develop not only the domestic market but also expand to overseas markets. mui Lab had also set its sights on the European and U.S. markets since its inception, and has been engaged in joint development with many leading companies. In the midst of Japanese companies that are increasingly inward-looking, mui Lab, which has inherited the DNA of Kyoto-based companies, has the mission of becoming a mega venture that will establish a foothold in the global market.
This great cause has been a consistent driving force for me since the founding of the company, and through the growth of mui Lab, I hope that we can become a role model for in-house ventures and startups originating in Kyoto.